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Negotiating the Spectacle: Projecting Fact, Fantasy and Fiction in Dubai

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
Adam Towle
University of Sheffield | UK
I’ve visited Dubai, and it’s hard not to fall in love with it … at least in the way a Stockholm syndrome sufferer shows loyalty to their captor, regardless of the danger in which they were placed.

This extraordinary architectural event is a bewildering, perversely magical place where dreams often come true. It has by far the most per capita entries in the Guinness World Records—with more in the making—and its flamboyant futurism and brilliant idiocy is mesmerising—almost charming. As are its people.

This has come at a cost. In its adolescent haste to do so much maturing in such a short time the actions of its protagonists are in need of some serious critical interrogation and accountability.

Recently, because of this, debate about Dubai is in vogue. However, it seems that the city is regularly misunderstood—often caricatured by the press. New commentaries appear by the minute about the decidedly suspect human rights record, expressing derision at the frivolous spending, criticising Dubai’s role in the impending environmental apocalypse, proclaiming disgust at how Architecture is being bastardised. There is also a big “I told you so” as the current global economic crisis hits hard.

The aim of this dissertation was therefore to negotiate the quagmire of opinions surrounding Dubai and find out if the convenient stereotypes conceal a more serious, and perhaps admirable, ambition to improve the fate of an entire nation.

By exploring Dubai through familiar, simple typologies I found a host of critical positions that are as plastic as the city they’re based on, allowing me to reflect on the techniques used to create and sustain Dubai and to look at the products that such an accelerated urbanisation can leave behind.

Any attempt to be current with a commentary on Dubai is already out of date—the city changes so fast it resists being perceived candidly at any one moment. So by applying the observations made, this dissertation concludes with fictions/uncertainties and issues a call for architecture to take itself less seriously—as it has now been reinvented in Dubai in more affable and commercial terms.

Adam Towle

Negotiating the Spectacle presents an exceptional exploration about its topic – Dubai and the accelerated transformation of this city. The material used in this exploration is both thoroughly and intuitively collected original research material as well as meticulously sourced and critically reflected secondary material. The field research done in Dubai is particularly commendable and gives this work the edge over so many pieces that simply construct an argument out of hear-say and archival sources. In that respect the dissertation provides the reader with new insight and critical knowledge about a very topical urban and architectural phenomenon. The dissertation further excels in challenging architecture and our role as architects in the light of an urban spectacle that seems to refute all traditional values of the discipline.

Negotiating the Spectacle is well written, scholarly where necessary and witty where suitable. The author developed an original and highly appropriate form of the dissertation reflecting both personal exploration as well as the ever changing character Dubai itself. By using a multi-layeredness which employs different text genres – from diary to critical reflection to manifesto – the dissertation creates a form and structure that is as academically unorthodox as it is elucidating and enticing to read. Furthermore, the usage of a precisely observing photography goes beyond a simple illustration of the text and creates its own narrative, adding to the richness of this rigorous, critical and original study of Dubai.

Dr. Florian Kossak

Mr Florian Kossak
Prof Sarah Wigglesworth
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